Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thriller Writer Mike Lawson on Believable Heroes, Great Books, and Faulty Politics

Mike Lawson writes the popular and much-lauded Joe DeMarco series of thrillers. House Justice was just released, and involves DeMarco in the fallout of the death of a CIA spy in Iran.

Mike, thanks for chatting with me at Mysterious Musings.

Before you were a writer, you were a nuclear engineer for the U.S. Navy. What did that job entail?

A whole bunch of stuff – but most of what I did was related to overhauling and refueling nuc subs and aircraft carriers. I was a senior manager, had several thousand people working for me, and I worried about the typical things managers worry about: safety, meeting the schedule and the budget, hiring good people, quality, etc. The job was stressful – but it was never boring.

Your book, HOUSE JUSTICE, was hard to put down. It did not, however, do anything to reduce my already jaded attitude toward American politics. Are there really this many backroom deals and moral compromises in the halls of Congress and the CIA?

I’m not so sure about the CIA – they tend to get a bad rap because we only hear about the mistakes they make and not all the good things they do. And basically the CIA is implementing policy set by the Executive Branch. Congress is a different story. I’m not making up how corrupt Congress is and can be. It seems about once a week we hear about some congressman taking a bribe, diddling somebody of the same or opposite sex, sending pork to aid rich folk more than ordinary folk, etc. Like I said in House Justice, there’s a reason companies pay lobbyists so much money and hire so many of them and, cynical as it sounds, I sometimes think we have the best government money can buy. And I’m not sparing either party.

Good. Your hero, Joe DeMarco, is refreshingly different, because he is NOT the guy with a gun. He is a lawyer, and while he can defend himself, his job is not always to storm in and get the bad guys. How did you happen to create DeMarco?

I wanted a protagonist that somebody else didn’t have. There are already too many good detectives, lawyers, ex-special forces operatives, etc. in fiction. I wanted a) someone different and b) someone connected to D.C.– and thus DeMarco, a guy who works for a shady Speaker of the House. And most of the time in the books, DeMarco reacts to a situation the way I would react – which means he’s not super smart or super brave because neither am I.

Before you majored in engineering, had you considered writing as a career?

No, never considered it. I got a degree in engineering mainly because my dad was a steel worker and was under the misguided impression that engineers ran the world – and he kinda pushed me in that direction. But it was a good field in which to get a degree because you could almost always find a job to pay the bills. I did a lot of writing, however, as an engineer – technical stuff, reports, etc. – and was fairly good at it. And I’ve always read a lot – and some place along the way I said to myself: Self, why don’t we try to write a novel?

Good thing you answered yes!

I couldn’t help but notice that you make politicians, in general, very physically unattractive. The men are often described with jowls and big guts, and two women I recall were the one with “a face like a hammerhead shark” and one who made Eleanor Roosevelt look attractive. Is their ugliness symbolic of something in the book, or is it just a general stereotype that people in politics are not, as a rule, good looking?

To tell you the truth, I never noticed. Some of the characters just seem to me like they shouldn’t be good looking – or I don’t want them ordinary looking. I don’t make them all unattractive though – like the bad guy in House Secrets was a handsome senator and so was the bad guy in House Rules. Another trick to writing is you have to make the characters stand-out in the readers mind – and a description like “she had a face like a hammerhead shark” will probably stick in your mind more than “she had long, flowing locks, perfect features, and emerald green eyes.”

Good point. In your book, at least two of the women in the CIA are mistreated because of their gender and their good looks. Would you say this is the status quo?

I would say, in all seriousness, that there is a gender-gap in the business world. When the boss is a man, he tends to feel more comfortable having other men in management positions and, thus, can tend to overlook the talents and abilities of women. Having said that, the gender gap is clearly closing. We have women CEOs and in the last election you had one woman running for president and one for vice-president – I’d say that’s getting pretty close to touching the glass ceiling.

Did you ever consider going into politics as a career?

Not on your life. Although I tend not to be too happy with a lot of politicians, I sincerely believe most people go into politics not for the money or the power but because they truly want to serve the country. But it’s a brutal business – and I think the pressure of trying to get reelected, the party pressure, and the influence of lobbyists is corrupting - and nothing about being a politician appeals to me. Having said all that, I guess that makes me like most people – throwing rocks at the system rather than becoming part of it and trying to fix it. Shame on me.

What would be the first change you’d make if you ran the country?

Congress. I think it’s broken. I think we need major structural changes to make Congress work. It’s not the people, it’s the system. Things like term limits, ways to minimize the influence of lobbyists, less people in Congress and those that are there, representing broader geographical areas to make them less parochial. I don’t think the two-party system is serving us well, and sometimes I wonder if the concept of individual states serves us particularly well. Now I suppose I have to worry about how many people I’ve just pissed off with that little rant.

Whose books do you like to read?

Thank God. I’m glad were off the political questions. I like to read mysteries, thrillers, and the occasional sci-fi book. I like Michael Harvey, John Sanford, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, James Lee Burke, Thomas Perry, Carol O’Connell, Gillian Flynn, to name a few. I also like non-fiction. I just read two books by James Bamford on the NSA – the National Security Agency. I read them partly as research for my next DeMarco book but also because I like that sort of stuff. I finished Tim Egan’s book The Big Burn not too long ago – the book about the big forest fires in Montana in 1910.

Are you writing another Joe DeMarco adventure?

DeMarco #6 is currently in the hands of my editor for his final review and will be out next summer. DeMarco #7 is 80% done. DeMarco #8 – maybe – is sort of done – but it’s a book I’ve been dinking with for years and can’t seem to get quite right. I’m also working on a non-DeMarco novel and just starting a screenplay.

Even though some of your characters did not receive justice in its truest sense (as your title implies), there seems to be a sense of Karma at work here. How did you determine which characters got away with things and which did not?

I just don’t think everything needs to be tied up in a neat bow in a novel. Every bad guy doesn’t have to get bumped off or end up in jail. Normally, the major bad guys have to get the axe literally or figuratively, or the reader will be somewhat unsatisfied. But sometimes the bad guy is not totally a bad guy – like the florist in House Justice – or he’s just a pawn of the really bad guy, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need to get whacked. And sometimes you want to save your bad guys for another book. And I’m a big believer in luck or Karma in real life – a lot of what happens to us good or bad is often a matter of luck – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – or vice versa – and it should be the same in novels.

Did it surprise your friends and family that you retired and suddenly bloomed into another career?

I think everybody was surprised except my wife. She saw me toiling away for over ten years, re-writing books and getting reject letters from every agent in the country, but she also saw me keep trying. So she wasn’t totally surprised when I finally succeeded. All my friends were totally surprised because none of them even knew I was writing novels in my spare time and trying to get published. Even after publishing five books, I imagine some of my friends still can’t believe it.

What are your plans for the summer?

Unfortunately, because House Justice was just released, I’m doing a lot of book-touring in June and July, and I’ve also been trying to wrap up DeMarco #6. After July, although I’ll still write every morning, I’ll be able to slack off a little. When I’m not writing, frankly, I just sort of goof around – fish, play golf (badly) and do whatever my wife tells me I’m supposed to do.

Thanks for talking with me, Mike!

Thank you, Julia, this was fun.

Visit Mike Lawson's website at website

and follow him on twitter @MikeLawsonBooks.

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